By 2018, the number of physical therapists in the United States is projected to grow  by 30.3 percent, but the number of students majoring in kinesiology – a field in which many physical therapists hold a degree -- is growing at an even faster rate. According to the American Kinesiology Association, the number of undergraduate kinesiology majors grew 50 percent from 2003 to 2008, to more than 26,000 students, making it one of the fastest-growing majors in the country.
Kinesiology, or the study of physical movement, has seen a surge in popularity over the last 20 years that experts attribute to its social relevance, its relation to the obesity epidemic, and the growing societal importance of sports and athletics. Although kinesiology may find critics among those who just picture it as a gym class, the curriculum has developed over the years to offer courses that extend beyond physical education to psychology, sociology, neurology and biomechanics.
Many students are straying from traditional kinesiology careers like coaching or fitness instruction, and more than half pursue other quickly-growing allied health or medical professions like athletic trainer, occupational therapist or physician assistant. A new need for elementary- and middle-school physical education coaches is also on the horizon, as the movement to improve children’s health continues.
“Right now I see nothing in the future that would dull the interest of students in studying this rather exciting area of physical activity, because we look at physical activity from all these different perspectives,” said Shirl Hoffman, executive director of the AKA.
Kinesiology has become one of the most popular majors at large state universities such as San Diego State, where it was the second-most popular major this spring with 1,252 students. (Psychology had 1,604 majors, and biology was third with 1,207.) In many cases, the growth of the major far exceeds the growth of the undergraduate population as a whole. At the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Maryland at College Park, kinesiology majors have increased while total enrollment has declined.
Changes in Enrollments in Kinesiology and Overall Undergraduate Programs, 2002-2007
|California State U. at Fullerton||104%||15.5%|
|San Diego State U.||63.4||9.4|
|U. of Texas at Austin||63.0||-5.6|
|Louisiana State U.||40.0||5.1|
|U. of North Texas||39.6||13.2|
|U. of Maryland at College Park||33.0||2.4|
|Iowa State U.||26.6||-8.7|
Despite the field's burgeoning popularity on the undergraduate level, students who want to continue their education in kinesiology may be hard-pressed to do so. Although the number of students enrolled in kinesiology master’s programs has increased 20 percent and the number of doctoral students 29 percent, only about 1 percent of the undergraduates go on to get a higher degree in the field, said Jane Clark, chair of the kinesiology department at the University of Maryland. That discrepancy results in part from the students’ own interests -- many of the brightest go to medical school, she said -- but other reasons include low funding and a dearth of professors.
Clark says her department has the same number of tenure-track faculty as it did 10 years ago, although the number of students has approximately doubled, to 825. Two years ago the department shut down its minor because of an inability to staff it. The lack of resources to train new professors is one of the biggest challenges facing the field: currently there are only 60 Ph.D. programs in the country for kinesiology -- a sharp decline from two decades ago.
The west coast once had more than 10 doctoral programs; now there are none in California, and only one each in Oregon and Washington. Twenty years ago, when the Ph.D. programs decided to move toward becoming more scientific and research-based, many researchers narrowed their focus. Eventually, the kinesiology departments splintered and became integrated into other units such as physiology or biology.
“A lot of these programs on the west coast were the leaders in their fields at the time, and they thought they were leading the charge to become more scientific,” said Roberta Rikli, dean of the college of health and human development at California State University at Fullerton. “They were able to attract these top scientists in neuroscience and physiology, and then [those scientists] didn’t have an interest in physical activity. So what started out to be a good thing turned into something else.”
The departments in California suffer as a result, because they have to hire faculty from other institutions, and their students have to move out of state to continue their training. “In 2007, California had 11,500 undergraduates graduating,” Hoffman said. “But what’s alarming to some of us is that we have this whole region in the country now that doesn’t have doctoral programs to prepare faculty for our students in this field.”
The prospects for more programs are uncertain, but Rikli says she hopes that in the next several years universities can acknowledge their necessity. “As they start seeing the importance of studying physical activity as a social issue, and the need for research in this area and the need for faculty, then they’ll see the need for [the programs] again,” she said.
But until that happens, instead of tenure-track faculty, many kinesiology departments have begun to hire full-time lecturers with master’s degrees who have been physical therapists or physical education teachers, said Jerry Thomas, dean of the college of education at the University of North Texas and founding AKA president. In addition to being more financially feasible, Thomas says this is a generally smart decision.
“If you hire all full-time faculty and something changes back, then you’re overloaded, so you have to be a little tentative in your expansions,” he said. This caution may be unwarranted if the undergraduate programs continue to expand at their current rate, although Thomas says the future of kinesiology eventually should reach a plateau.
“I don’t see how it can continue to grow at this pace, but I don’t think it’s going to go back to where it was," he said. "I don’t think it’s just a little bump in the radar.”